FEATURE: Dissillusions: Is Bringing Musicians Back to Life Through Holographic Projection Morally Right?






IN THIS PHOTO: Amy Winehouse captured in 2004/PHOTO CREDIT: Karen Robinson 

Is Bringing Musicians Back to Life Through Holographic Projection Morally Right?


THIS is one of these subjects that can really divide people…


 IN THIS PHOTO: Amy Winehouse photoed in 2003/PHOTO CREDIT: Karen Robinson 

depending on your ethical viewpoint. Amy Winehouse is the latest deceased musician to get the holographic treatment. Winehouse died in 2011 and, naturally, people miss her and long to see her perform again. There have been rare songs released and a collection of half-finished cuts brought to the public. A documentary about her life, Amy, was released a few years back and it has been announced a biopic of the singer will start work fairly soon. I was a bit shocked to discover a biopic was being considered because Winehouse is that unique character who cannot be easily replicated. One wonders who will play her and whether that portrayal will be able to get within miles of who she was and why she captivated people. The news she is to go ‘on tour’ in the form of a hologram sent shivers up my spine. You can say it is good people get to see her tour again but the fact she is dead and what we are seeing is some weird spirit on the stage, to me, doesn’t sit right. The Guardian’s Laura Barton reacted to the news and asked, as I am, whether ‘resurrecting’ stars is ethical and moral:

It has been announced that Winehouse will return to the stage once again in 2019, touring the world in hologram form. Winehouse is not the first artist to receive the hologram treatment – there have already been such incarnations of Tupac Shakur, Maria Callas, Michael Jackson and more. But the decision to turn Winehouse into a hologram, seven years after her death from alcohol poisoning, has divided many. For some this is a celebration of a great and much-missed musician. Others argue that an artist who loathed touring and hated fame should be allowed to rest…


In the case of Winehouse, proceeds from the tour will be channelled into the Amy Winehouse Foundation, the charity established after her death to aid vulnerable and disadvantaged young people, particularly those coping with substance abuse and emotional problems. The singer’s father, Mitch Winehouse, is the executor of Winehouse’s estate and chair of the foundation, and was intimately involved in negotiations for the hologram tour. It was just a couple of years after her death that he was first approached with the idea. “It was way too early,” says Mitch. “At that time, I could barely watch a video of Amy, never mind a hologram. I completely dismissed it out of hand.”

How we remember Winehouse – or any artist – is an interesting matter. Alongside next year’s hologram tour, there will be a new film about her life, made by Alison Owens, and Mitch Winehouse, who has been critical of Kapadia’s documentary, hopes that it will offer a more tender portrait of the singer. “Alison is the mum of Lily Allen, who herself has had struggles,” he says. “It couldn’t be in more considerate and caring hands.” Mitch also has absolute approval from Base over his daughter’s virtual image. There will be no drinking on stage, he tells me. “Amy will be portrayed at her best”.

One can claim some of Winehouse’s later performances were unfocused and shambolic – given her alcohol addiction and personal problems.

Whilst there were some ragged and controversial shows; when she was at her best and most composed; there was nobody who could project the same sense of wonder, emotion and realness. You felt like you were hearing sermons and soulful revelations from an artist free from bullsh*t and ego. This was a performer who gave her all to the music and, when on the stage, wanted the audience to see that. It was not so much a case of bringing them into songs and making them part of her words: it was a chance to see this physical being express what was inside her and watch that come out in a very primal and human way. The fact you were, literally, in the same space as Amy Winehouse was what made her such a popular and wonderful performer. Although she was only with us for twenty-seven years; I feel this eternal preservation through holographic representation is morally suspect. It is okay her family have approved this venture and there is money going to Winehouse’s foundation. I applaud the charity angle and the fact Winehouse going on tour as this disembodied projection will raise money to help others but one feels a tribute concert could have done the same thing. One might say having others performer her songs in memory of her treads the same ethical lines as a hologram Winehouse but I sharply disagree.


 IN THIS IMAGE: Gorillaz/IMAGE CREDIT: Getty Images

There is concert footage of Amy Winehouse and archive material of her. Her records are out there and the hologram that will go touring is not going to give us anything new. You cannot add much to what has already been performed and I wonder whether people who will literally buy into these concerts are doing it for the right reasons. Are they merely there to witness something strange and new or do they genuinely want to support Winehouse and what she stood for?! I still think artists should be left alone but, alas, it seems like nobody is safe. I have covered this topic before and, last time, asked whether there are benefits to holographic versions of stars. Strangely, one can unite disparate deceased in a single performance. You could revive any dead artist and put them together with someone else to create this weird and one-off performance. The only way holograms and these kind of ideas sit well with me is if the artist is living. Consider Gorillaz who, as we know, are sort of cartoon/projection characters with real, living voices. When you see a Gorillaz concert you know the voices and instruments you see are from real people and that is part of the illusion. It is an inventive and new way of turning real musicians into cartoon versions. It has been suggested that holographs could be a way for living musicians to perform around the world without having to travel. If they are ill, exhausted or unable to perform then maybe this is a solution.

I am all for technology advancing music and open to any innovation but live performance, as its name suggests, is about the living and the audience being in close proximity to the artist they paid to see. I do not see much point seeing a hologram performing in any case and if you are struggling to perform then you need to take some time out and recuperate. Unfortunately, Amy Winehouse is in good company when it comes to being turned into a hologram. There is a school of thought that suggests holograms – whether that word is a misnomer or truly accurate – are the way forward and there is a definite appetite for them. There is a theatrical side to it and it certainly does something new with the concept of a live show. If you want to enhance music and use technology this way; ensuring only living artists are involved avoids any moral issues and avoids it being too creepy. An article from Noisey looked at the evolution of holograms and talked about ethical implications:

When it comes to creepiness, there’s also a moral implication of bringing a celebrity back from the dead and making profit from their image. One suspects Michael Jackson may have been thrilled by his showstopping performance at the 2014 Billboard Music Awards – made by Pulse Evolution, the company Textor started with other facial animation team members from Digital Domain when the company filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. But what might Billie Holiday, who died in 1959, think about playing at noon everyday on the Hollywood Boulevard at $22-$32 a pop? Is the fact we can’t ask her – or Jackson – reason enough not to do it? And isn’t the whole thing a little macabre?


IN THIS PHOTO: Billie Holiday in 1938/PHOTO CREDIT: Underwood & Underwood/Corbis  

“Look, Billie Holiday or anyone of our deceased celebrities are performers, right?” says a slightly exasperated Alki, sounding like a man who’s heard this question more than a few times since he entered the burgeoning industry in 2012. “They lived for the limelight, so an ability to continue after death would be something they’d want.” So the thought never troubles him? “Personally, no. Does it create controversy with people? Sure it does. We embrace the controversy because it kickstarts the conversation and creates awareness”.

Another odd thing about holograms if the fact it is sort of a commercial Heaven. Artists can obtain this immortality and continue to make money – for their estate – long after they die and proves, in music, there is life (of a sort) after death. One of my big problems is the artist does not consent – the same is true of biopics. I am uneasy with estates and families speaking for the artist and taking decisions out of their hands. I think Winehouse would object to her going on the road as a hologram; Roy Orbison would be a bit weirded-out and I am sure there are few deceased artists who would actively welcome them being kept on life support through this new technology. How long has the idea of a musician hologram been around? How far has it come? This article looks at that point:

Five years after his death, Michael Jackson stole the show. He always did when he was alive, and it was no different during Sunday night's Billboard Music Awards (BBMA), when a holographic MJ joined a five-piece band and 16 dancers onstage.

He wasn't the first. When hologram technology emerged two years ago, it seemed like a fad. Now it's a trend of resurrection so common it might just be the future of the industry…

It began in April 2012, when a virtual Tupac Shakur took the stage at the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival with Snoop Dogg and Dr. Dre. It was the first time a hologram had been used in a live performance for such a huge American crowd, and the first time hologram technology was used to ressurrect a dead singer.

The technology is widely celebrated, but the principle is a little more troubling. Bringing back the dead has always been treacherous ground to tread. In robotics, there's a concept called the "uncanny valley," where a digital or robotic likeness of a human is cool until it looks just enough like a real person, at which point it becomes terrifying. Think about any of Pixar's human caricatures, and now think about the Polar Express.

There's also the disturbing symbolism of the whole practice. This may be the future of entertainment, but perhaps it will never sit well. It takes months and long hours to create a likeness (and we will get faster), but it takes years of full life to build the real thing”.

I might come around to the concept of holograms if there was a way of utilising living artists and doing something impossible in real life.

I am always going to be suspect and uneasy with departed musicians because it has that creepy and synthetic quality. A final article agrees with my moral hesitation and asks whether the technology is actually fully-realised:

I guess I’d be a little more inclined to open my mind to the hologram concert idea if it were more to recreate a particular historical musical moment in the most realistic way possible. If offered the chance to “be there” when Led Zeppelin played three sold-out shows at Madison Square Garden, just to name one example, I’d probably bite at it. Live Aid: The Hologram Experience, anyone?

But we’re a long, long way off from hologram technology being anywhere even remotely close to having the capability to “re-create” a full show like that. And I’m not sure we should even try. Maybe things happen and we miss them and that’s OK. Maybe our favorite singers just die and they can “live on” in video footage or through actually living musicians who cover their work. As we’ve learned so often from our technological advances, just because we can do something doesn’t mean we should”.

Other people will have their views and say this is a way of preserving artists and ensuring they reach new audiences. Others will state holograms are a chance for people to experience artists in a new light and get to see something nobody else has. I respect some people are open-minded to this concept and see light in it but I feel leaving artists like Amy Winehouse alone is doing more to her memory than reimagining her – whether that is via holographic form or a biopic. Artists need to have a say regarding their life/work and holograms do not give them that chance. The technology might improve and I may come around to the idea but, right now, the idea of reviving a lost musician in this fashion…


 PHOTO CREDIT: @russbaum/Unsplash

LEAVES me somewhat cold.